Europe Is Stumbling Through a ‘Worldmaking’ Moment

Europe Is Stumbling Through a ‘Worldmaking’ Moment
Migrants cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, near the border of Morocco and Spain, May 19, 2021 (AP photo by Bernat Armangue).
Nearly three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the crisis continues to dominate, if not quite monopolize, the attention of policymakers and pundits in Europe and the U.S. It is the cause of weekly and even daily debates and ructions over everything from how much aid to Ukraine is enough and how much is too much, to which European leader has done the most to support Kyiv in its hour of need and which the least. In addition to upending Europe’s security landscape, the war has also transformed Europe as an economic and political space. Finland and Sweden are clamoring to join NATO. The European Union has erected a still-rising barrier between the EU and Russian economies, albeit with grudging reluctance when it comes to energy trade. And there is no clear path back toward a status quo ante in which European governments and institutions engage with Russia as a normal actor in global politics. But if the war in Ukraine has returned clarity and purpose to Europe as a pillar of the West, it has so far triggered little thought to the long-term consequences for the global order as well as Europe’s role in it. This is surprising, for the war in Ukraine is clearly a worldmaking moment—one that Europe now risks stumbling blindly through with a response to it that is both clearsighted and myopic. Clearsighted, because it recognizes the threat that Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his insistence on closed systems and spheres of influence, poses to the EU’s model of openness. Myopic, because it fails to see how the EU’s model of openness had grown increasingly untenable, socially, economically and politically, and how its response to the war will in all likelihood hasten its demise. Europe’s challenge historically has always been determining where it ends. This has usually been a theoretical debate over socio-cultural boundaries, but throughout the colonial period, and on occasion during bids for continental hegemony, it became a political challenge, one inherited by the EU. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy famously explained his opposition to Turkey’s EU accession bid by saying he wouldn’t be the one to tell French schoolchildren that Europe’s borders extend to Iraq and Syria. Current French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposal for a multi-tiered Europe, comprising core EU member states as well as aspiring members and close partners, is a rehashed version of a well-worn alternative solution to the problem. Putin has simplified the task by seeking to impose a limit to Europe from the outside. But in reality, from its third-country agreements to outsource refugee and immigration policy to its increasingly geopolitical approach to trade, Europe has been gradually defining itself as an enclosed space for years now. Macron’s own mantra of “a Europe that protects” dates back to his initial election campaign five years ago. Where exactly the boundary will be situated between Europe and what it must be protected from, and how porous that boundary will be, remains to be determined. But it is no longer a speculative project. Nor is it an anomaly. It is part of a broader historical shift in which borders and boundaries have reemerged as a central focus of global politics. It is no coincidence this reconfiguration comes at a time when the previous emphasis on openness was running out of steam. But it’s worth remembering the equivalent moment in that structuring idea’s life cycle: the attacks of 9/11, which galvanized the U.S. at a time when the West’s victory in the Cold War had lost its potency to inspire.

Globalization has come full circle, from its early, if utopian, visions of a postnational future back to an embrace of the nation as the fundamental and necessary unit of political organization.

Like the West’s response to the war in Ukraine, the U.S. response to 9/11 was also a worldmaking mission. Though obscured by the “War on Terror” label, it more broadly set out to remove pockets of instability and “fragility” that prevented the expansion and integration of the increasingly interconnected liberalized global economy. Though Europe often shied away from the militarized aspect of that mission, in retrospect it is clear that the great power the U.S. deployed—in the form of high-tech weapons and precision munitions—served to enhance the appeal of its model, used as both an “advertisement for the future” and evidence of the moral justness of its cause. Elsewhere, the ideological and normative objectives of globalization’s worldmaking mission were accomplished mechanically, through the indirect effects of trade on local politics, rather than through the use of force or conquest. By connecting their countries to the global economy, governments were opening pathways for the market to work its liberalizing magic by osmosis. In the U.S. and later worldwide, the tech revolution, imbued with utopianism, served as the civilian application of what the U.S. military showcased on the ground in the Middle East. In retrospect, of course, and as was already obvious to the populations on the receiving end of it, that narrative was equal parts myth and self-delusion. High-tech precision weapons made for great TV sound bites to sell the American public on a new antiseptic form of warfare, but they left behind thousands of dead civilians. Extremism and the instability and state fragility it caused were never sustainably eradicated in any of the places it was targeted. And in almost every case it was dispersed as well, widening the field of struggle against it from the Middle East to North Africa and West Africa—but also, in both familiar and new forms, to Europe and the U.S. Globalization was also far from the peaceful model of development it was portrayed to be. Dispossession and expulsion, as Saskia Sassen has pointed out, took place in parallel ways in both the periphery—in the form of extractive industries that left environmental degradation and state repression in their wake—and the center, in the form of unemployment, evictions and mass incarceration. Above all, globalization failed to deliver on its normative promise of delivering a great convergence around economic and political liberalism. Instead, it exacerbated inequalities within countries and societies, while distributing wealth and power to states whose governments didn’t share the West’s values. Moreover, it never managed to entirely eliminate geopolitical rivalries and conflict, and the resulting compromises between competing interests and values created cognitive dissonance between the theory and practice of globalization. The result was a murky erosion of delimiting principles, in which borders became theoretical for the goods that Western populations wanted to consume, as well as for wealthy populations the world over, while remaining concrete for the vast majority of people left to endure globalization’s more destructive consequences. Now, whether by choice or necessity, the war in Ukraine represents the first steps toward reestablishing firm limits both in and on Europe. But if Europe and the West’s response to the war in Ukraine is now being lauded—and not incorrectly—as a turning point in the battle between liberalism and authoritarianism, it is also a turning point in this ebb and flow between openness and closedness, as it is a defense of liberalism anchored in the nation-state. Globalization, it seems, has come full circle, from its early, if utopian, visions of a postnational future back to an embrace of the nation as the fundamental and necessary unit of political organization. What, then, will that mean for the broader global order as well as for Europe and the West’s self-defined role in it? How will the competing claims of connectedness and “protected-ness” be harmonized, if not reconciled? And what are the implications of a Europe divided between the EU and Russia for those countries that continue to seek to maximize the benefits of what remains of globalization, namely trade and investment? For now, Europe has expected the rest of the world to faithfully play the choir in its Greek tragedy, taking states to task for not aligning with its position in United Nations voting or refusing to join in its economic measures to punish Russia. But those states, and their populations, have little desire to be drawn into yet another geopolitical standoff in Europe that they have no power to influence but which is already having grave consequences for their populations. It is evidence of the West’s failure of imagination that it can respond so effectively to what Ukraine needs, because it involves weaponry and military assistance, but has little to offer when it comes to the socio-economic aspirations of the world that lies beyond its increasingly closing borders. It will have to generate some new ideas if it is to meaningfully shape the worldmaking moment it is now such a central participant in, but also if it hopes to avoid the errors that undid the last one.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.

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